A Family Trip to Vimy Ridge, 1936

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52C 3 6.1  20100116-002, Canadian War Museum Archive

Last semester, you may recall I was working on a project on the subject of the Vimy Ridge sculptures, which involved my own experience as a tourist to Vimy Ridge as well as archival research here in Ottawa.  I have also already written about another interesting find in the Canadian War Museum archive.  Often, in the course of performing archival research, the juiciest of finds are completely accidental; they happen to be place in the same fond as something else your search terms (or friendly neighborhood archivist) pulled out for you. It’s the pleasant surprise of running across something so unexpected that can really make these documents so memorable to individual researchers.

This is one such document. Now, to refresh your memory, the Vimy Ridge monument in North-Eastern France was meant to commemorate those Canadians who died in France during the Great War but whose bodies were never found. It was not completed and unveiled until 1936. (Incidentally, the dedication of this monument was one of the few major public events that King Edward VI performed during his short reign that year.) Several thousand Canadian veterans and their families attended the unveiling ceremony, travelling vast distances by boat and train. Called the Vimy Pilgrims, they were shown around England and Northern France in grand style in highly scheduled programs, ending with a visit at Buckingham Palace in London. This photo album documents one such journey of the family of a Canadian veteran, Corporal Henry Botel.

In many ways, particularly in the poses and “types” of images, these photos resemble the same sort of ones that would be taken on a family holiday to Europe today, for all that they were taken 77 years ago. There are shots of famous monuments from the ferry/steamship, triangles of family members photographed in groups in front of various landscapes, the family with their luggage, photos of travelling acquaintances, and of course crowds of other tourists swarming an “important” site with the relevant friend or family member in the foreground.

Paging through the album, it was odd for me to retrace these family’s steps in photographs. I do not know these people, but I know these places. That is my personal connection to this album. I have unwittingly visited most of the locations pictured in their album, just over seventy-five years later. I have followed this route, which is roughly depicted in chronological order (which was easy to verify, as the War Museum’s archive also contains their printed itinerary.) After a series of images of them leaving Montreal by ship, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu when I turned the page and suddenly saw a photograph taken at train station in Amiens (pictured above, centre). I have visited this city before, and I have distinct memories of pacing up and down the platform (and, once, racing down it to make a connection, after my train got in late) in between transfers. The look and style of the trains and the passengers may have changed, but the backdrop hadn’t. The structure of the platform, and even the sign announcing the stop’s name, hasn’t changed overmuch in the last seventy years. The Botel family also visited Rouen, a city to which I feel particularly attached after living there for seven months last year. I recognized the style of housing and the city’s coat of arms immediately, though the foreground contained many more smartly dressed men in caps that I remember being there. And of course there are the photographs of the Vimy memorial itself; then, recently built, but when I visited it, recently restored. The marble gleams like new in my own memory and my photographs, matching these images from three quarters of a century ago. I felt like the photographs in this album could have been taken by me. Minus, of course, the tremendously large crowds of men in uniform and their neatly-dressed wives and children.

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Then there are pages like the above. Again, I recognize the place – or at least the type of place. Military cemeteries in Europe tend to resemble each other very closely, with their rows upon rows of near identical gravestones. My great uncle fought in the Great War and survived until the 1970s (though he made it out with one less leg than he had gone in with). I had no grave to visit, and three quarters of a century later, I had very little personal or familial emotional connection to these cemeteries. That was very much not the case for the Botel family. Often, the compiler of the album scribbles a quick explanation – sometimes just a date, or a place – to accompany the photograph. In this case, the photograph is of the little girl who is so often pictured elsewhere in the album: Frances Botel, the veteran’s daughter. She is pictured here next to a neat row of war graves. The caption reads “Charlie’s grave, Aubigny, France.” (Likely Aubigny-au-Bac, which is in the Nord Pas de Calais, a very war-torn region.) The girl smiles awkwardly, head tilted at an odd angle, squinting in the sun. The site is important to the family; Charlie’s identity would have been self-evident for the photographer and for the compiler. She would be too young to remember the war or this long-lost Charlie, but it was felt to be important to visit and be photographed visiting this site. To me, it is odd that they should be smiling in a graveyard, but perhaps that’s just what you do when someone points a camera at you: you smile.

Martha Langford in Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums speaks of photo albums almost in the same terms of oral histories; they are performances. Photo albums are ideally understood when it is mediated by someone who knows its contents intimately. These unpublished albums are generally compiled for a very small, private audience: friends, family, and those who would appreciate its contents. Because of this limited audience, often photo albums have few, if any captions, and the people and places that appear most often are often the least labelled, because their names would have been obvious to the observer. It was the odd locations and passing acquaintances, those who wouldn’t necessarily be immediately recognized, that are labelled. Ironically, in the very act of preservation, by donating a family photo album to an archive, one divorces this set of images from much of its meaning, because the album is separated from that source of oral, unwritten information.

That being said, under what circumstances are albums acquired by archives? Are they donated by family members who want their family history preserved? Or are they donated, alternatively, by family members for whom the album no longer holds any meaning or personal memories? Or do they find their way into the archive in a more roundabout way, through antique markets and specialty collectors, as mere examples of intriguing or “typical” examples of an age?

Henry Botel died in 1977. Judging by the control number, a large collection of his documents from the time of the war through to the Vimy Pilgrimage were donated en masse to the War Museum in 2010.  Taken together, the curator and researcher can learn from the additional documents that the mysterious “Charlie” whose grave was visited was Charlie Murphy of the 75th Battalion. Such information can only be found by reading through the supplementary documents provided with the album, which could also have been missing this and other crucial information. These documents together tell a very  compelling and fascinating story, full of at times surprising, contradictory reminders of the era: an advertisement in their Vimy Pilgrimage Guide for the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin appears alongside ads for European tourism with captions like “This time… in peace”. However, are these supplemental textual documents any substitute for an oral narrative? Reading photo albums is really a performance, best done by someone who was there, or who knows the people picture, pointing and explaining throughout all of the little details that might otherwise be overlooked or remain unknown.

Further Reading

This photograph album is only one of many holdings on the subject of Corporal Botel’s family’s trip to Vimy Ridge held by the Canadian War Museum. Inquire with your friendly neighbourhood archivist to take a look at them for yourself!

Chambers, Deborah. “Family as Place: Family Photograph Albums and the Domestication of Public and Private Space” in Picturing Place: Photography and the geographical imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Hucker, Jacqueline. “‘After the Agony in Stony Places’: The Meaning and Significance of the Vimy Monument.” Vimy Ridge: a Canadian Reassessment. Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Michael Bechthold and Andrew Iarocci. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.

Langford, Martha. Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Scott, Jill. “Vimy Ridge Memorial: Stone with a Story.” Queen’s Quarterly 114, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 506-519.

“The Vimy Ridge War Memorial Unveiled.” The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1936. (If anybody is desirous of a PDF scan of this edition, I happen to have one! Feel free to message me.)

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